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August 17, 2005



"our tastes provide guidance to sound nutrition”: well, if evolution works, they probably do, albeit imperfectly.

Tim the Kiwi

One person who has taken the intuitionist approach quite literally is Leon Kass. He is the Chairman of the President's Council of Bioethics, advising the US President on stem cell research, among other things.

A 1997 article that defends this approach is located at: http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/medical_ethics/me0006.html

My personal view, and how I attack Kass, is by showing that deliberation would not occur if intuitions were the best guide to the moral truth. Hypothetical situations are probably the best tools we can employ in our process of deliberation, therefore they are important too. Things feel right because of this process, not dispite it. Once we have made up our minds, our intuition allows us to relax because we "know" we have made the best decision.


"I’m so wary of anyone who claims to have strong views." (Maybe you should revise your strapline?!)

Anyway, I'm with dearieme here (if we're arguing on strict material terms - although where that leaves moral questions...?), that evolution should affect intuitions as surely as tastes.

Tim: To be fair to Kass, the repugnance thing is only one element in his broader argument. His point there always seemed to me limited to the statement that our intuitions are legitimate form of knowledge, not that they are all-consuming. After all, he's a Straussian - hardly likely to favour a straight answer...


A lot of discussion of intuitionism tends to imply that intuitions spring out of nowhere, unmediated - that can be used as part of an argument that they reflect some deeper moral truths, or that they're absolute nonsense, according to taste (or intuition). I tend to think that in many cases things that feel to us like intuitions are actually learned moral reactions - learned through being drummed into us, or in many cases through the ways in which we use, and are taught, language.

Many words which are supposedly dispassionately descriptive - greed, stealing, generosity - come with a moral evaluation already attached. We're not taught what greed means, and then taught not to be greedy; we're taught not to be greedy, and from that we learn what it means. And all sorts of other moral reactions, consistent with a negative evaluation of greed, will flow from that.

That doesn't tell us whether greed is objectively right or wrong (if indeed that means anything) so much as about what it means to function within a given cultural/linguistic community. But that's an important thing to know, too.


Tom: very true, and all the more so as we're pretty much condemned to live in one of those communities, some time and somewhere. "Language is the house of being," etc.


Not American, but a baseball fan... I suspect restraining natural instincts is key to progression. Although the batting swing and the pitching action are much more natural than bowling and batting in cricket, the mechanics are very important to be able to perform well at the highest level.

Robert Schwartz

American and a Baseball fan. Yogi said you can't think and hit at the same time.


Dearieme - "our tastes provide guidance to sound nutrition”: well, if evolution works, they probably do, albeit imperfectly.

But, as the old song goes, we all like vindaloo, and I very much doubt that this is an evolved response, because it's generally believed that chillis are hot to prevent them being eaten by mammals (us).

Which tends to lead us (skipping a few obvious steps) towards the sort of position advocated by Tom above, which is the purist moral relativism I can ever remember seeing. Am I comfortable with this? Not at all, but I suspect that my discomfort is very much culturally determined. Anybody got a Get out of Jail Free card?


I'm not sure it is relativistic, actually, except when looked at from an (inaccessible) God's-eye-view/neutral perspective, because we all live in cultural/linguistic communities in which it doesn't make sense not to see the absolutes as absolute. It's no more relativistic than, say, speaking English. I can't just change the rules of grammar at will, even if they're in some sense arbitrary.


Not that either of us will make too much of a habit of it, but I'm with Tom here, as my comment above implies - and I'm no relativist.


Well, I don't like vindaloo, which leaves open such possiblities as (1) I am more highly evolved than you, or (2) You are more highly evolved, but in the wrong direction, or (3)My mother's curries were milder than your mother's. The latter sounds like nurture rather than nature, but it might be nature after all - just the nature of our mothers. Which is quite a good point in any nature v. nurture debate, come to think of it.


Tom & Blimpish, If you're arguing that the moral absolutes within our shared cultural community are the only ones that we can consider meaningfully, I think you're advocating a counsel of despair.

So far as one's personal actions and personal responsibility goes from day to day, what you say is fine, even necessary. But we share the universe with others whose culturally determined absolutes, while perfectly genuinely held, are incompatible with our own, and this can be deeply inconvenient, so we want, from our point of view, to do something about it.

Assuming for the sake of argument that we want to avoid a war of extermination, the only option open to us is to change their values to some we can co-exist with. Now experience teaches us that simply changing other peoples culture by force majeure is ineffective in achieving this goal: the most lasting effect of the westernation of Egypt, for example, was the rise of Qutbism internationally. The cultural determination of moral ideas is not ahistorical and is certainly not mechanical.

So how do you deal with people who reject your moral vocabulary entirely unless you can deploy a "meta-ethic" within which both sets of ideas can be understood. (I'm not suggesting any sort of moral equivalence here, just the need for some sort of functional discourse.)

If Tom wants to call this a "God's eye view", then fine. But I want to know how he will conduct trade, war and marriage without it. Me, I think it's intractable. I'm only posing the question, not the answers.


Dearieme - The ancient Romans ruled most of the known world, but they also ate sweet apricot custards that incorporated something much like Nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce).

Your evolved taste buds will help to tell you whether your food is potentially lethal; your upbringing and history will tell you whether your idea of heaven is to eat foie gras to the sound of trumpets.

Your instinct will tell you whether to fight or fly; only your culture will tell you to stop owning chattel slaves.


None of what I've argued is incompatible with learning, dialogue and change, nor in most cases with peaceful coexistence. It's just an acceptance of the (rather banal) fact that we think that the things we think are true are true. Also, while there are important moral disagreements within and between cultures, it's important not to overemphasise them - in most cases there's enough of a shared vocabulary for discussion to take place, and as a matter of fact international trade and the movement of people and ideas does go on. It's just that in the end, when discussion breaks down, I reserve my right to say to someone that I think she's just wrong, and respect her right to say the same to me. That won't normally lead me to demand a war of extermination.


Chris, I particularly like your last point: "only your culture will tell you to stop owning chattel slaves".
How does one explain sudden, discontinuous changes in culture, such as the success oif the abolitionists? I mean, the very word "culture" surely implies something that changes only slowly and continuously, doesn't it?


Chris, to clarify:

I think that there are universal moral absolutes (the meta-ethic, the Good), but ultimately we cannot, without the God's-eye view, claim truly to know them.

We can't have that God's-eye view, and so we're left only with an imperfect, partial perspective of the Good. But, that gives us some knowledge, but we understand that it is at once coloured and embodied within our cultural and linguistic practice. This is why we worry (the likes of me and dearieme especially) about tradition - because established practice can embody huge knowledge about the Good, that we can never recover.

Now, that means that within our community, as you say, we have the basis for dialogue because we share a very similar (albeit similarly partial) view of the Good. Between communities, though, we should be cautious and respectful. As Tom says, there's normally enough of a shared vocabulary to allow some interaction, although the distinction remains - which is why communities remain separate and distinct.

Where there isn't a shared vocabulary, then yes, that is an issue - although our limited knowledge of the Good again promotes caution; if they're harmless-and-weird, then leave them alone, but if they're nasty-and-weird, then harsher measures might be appropriate.

That's my position, anyway - a more confident moralism at home, but with a degree of relativity around this allowed in dealings outside the community.


OK, I'm going to sign off now, because I'm not a moral philosopher and I don't want to pretend I am. As restated, Tom's and Blimpish's positions look a lot less bleak than I thought they were. I'd differ, using the Blimpish formulation, in the confidence of my moralism at home, precisely because of its partial nature. But that probably wouldn't matter in practice.

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